During the summer, it’s easy to find all kinds of tomatoes at your local grocery store. But when you buy one during the winter, there’s a good chance it came from Florida, which produces one-third of the fresh tomatoes grown in the United States. In his new book, “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit” ($20, Andrews McMeel Publishing, June 7), investigative journalist Barry Estabrook looks inside the Sunshine State’s tomato-growing industry. What he finds proves anything but appetizing.
What made you first look into how tomatoes are grown in the United States?
My parents had a condo in Naples, Fla., and I was driving along Interstate 75 mindlessly when I came up behind a truck that was loaded with what I thought were Granny Smith apples. Then I realized they were tomatoes. They were as green as green could be. I merged off the highway behind the truck; we hit a series of bumps and a handful of these tomatoes flew off. When we came to a stoplight there were some sitting in the ditch, and they weren’t broken.
I’m used to growing heirloom Brandywine tomatoes in my garden in Vermont. If you pick one of those, you’re lucky to get it to the kitchen counter without it splitting open. So I thought, “What have they done to the tomato to make it so tough?” I began to suspect that it probably also had something do with why store-bought winter tomatoes lack taste, to be very, very kind.
Much of the book focuses on tomatoes grown in Florida. Why?
The fresh winter tomato from Florida is like a poster child for most of the ills of our modern industrial food system. We all give lip service to local, organic and seasonal, and those terms mean something. If you strip them all away, you end up with a Florida tomato. It’s designed not to be local. You almost can’t grow it without chemicals.
So Florida isn’t an ideal place to grow tomatoes?
From a botanical point of view, you’d have to be a fool to grow tomatoes in Florida. Tomatoes originated in very dry areas, and the ideal places to grow them are in places with Mediterranean climates. Florida has got one thing going for it — it’s warm when the rest of the country, particularly the East and Midwest, is cold. The tomatoes growing in Florida don’t grow in soil. In most places, they grow in sand. There are no nutrients, so they have to be fed everything. With the Florida humidity, fungal diseases attack them, and with Florida not having a hard freeze for a long period of time, all of the pathogens and insects never get whacked back like they do in the Northeast in the wintertime.
Does that lead to all kinds of pesticides and other chemicals?
You have to overcome all those things with a vast chemical arsenal. There are more than 100 chemicals that can be sprayed on the tomatoes.
How does the state place greater importance on the way a tomato looks than the way it tastes?
The Florida Tomato Committee, which controls all the tomatoes exported from the southern part of Florida during the winter months, sets very specific guidelines on everything from the size of the packing containers to the shape of the tomatoes, their color, and the condition of the skins. Flavor is simply not a consideration.
How do you think the big tomato growers will react to your book?
I think the big tomato growers will be furious, and I think they’ll be furious perhaps rightfully, because they are now making an effort, a genuine effort. The book tells the story of how we got to where we are today. There are a lot of things they’d rather forget that are going to get aired.
What can the average consumer do?
Buy local. I think if we encourage small local farmers, then commercial tomato growing will spread beyond the borders of Florida.
Yes, We Can…Can
Canning is difficult and scary and might give your entire family botulism! Except it isn’t and it won’t, as long as you follow directions. If you want to put up your own peaches/pickles/whatever (for reasons of sustainability, a desire to be Ma Ingalls or just to give people holiday presents that will impress them way more than it should), the Ball Home Canning Discovery Kit ($30, Qvc.com) has everything you need to get jamming. The set is made up of three jars, a canning rack with lifter (which makes it easier get the jars in and out of boiling water) and an illustrated guide/recipe book. You provide the produce and the stockpot; before long, you’ll be taking blue ribbons at the county fair.
Written by Express contributor Beth Luberecki